“Everything’s coming up Rose” by George Reddick
News & Notes
Sondheim 101: Everything’s coming up Rose — Gypsy at 50
Ghosts of Sweeney Todd
Sorry-Grateful: Ambivalence in Company
Sondheim and Rich continue to talk
Glossing “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” from Merrily We Roll Along
Cultural exploration in Pacific Overtures
Boston actresses discuss performing material by Sondheim
Remembering George Furth
The evolution of West Side Story’s music
Interview: Director Scott Ellis and A Little Night Music
Colleen Fitzpatrick’s view of Road Show
Reviews and Reactions
Anyone Can Whistle has a one-night stand at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.
Into the Woods at Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland
San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay presents Into the Woods
Night Music at TheatreWorks in Connecticut
Tennessee Rep presents Sweeney Todd
Lyric Stage Company of Boston stages Follies
Follies at Canada’s Shaw Festival
Company at Players Theatre in Sarasota
The Story So Far: Four CDs of Sondheim material
Singing Sondheim: Songs on new recordings
A new Cryptic Crossword: “Rolling Along”
Solution to previous puzzle
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Everything’s coming up Rose
Merman set the mold, but others have bloomed
Mark Steyn is one of many scholars and enthusiasts who call Gypsy “the greatest of all Broadway musicals.” New York Times critic Frank Rich simply named it his “favorite.” Today, Gypsy is widely accepted as one of the greatest achievements in the history of Broadway, and its components are often cited separately as the greatest book, the greatest score, the greatest overture and the greatest role.
The last of those is perhaps the most persuasive, for Rose has become the most coveted role in musical theatre. Broadway historian Ethan Mordden compares it to the great roles of opera that give enthusiasts “an endless gallery of great singers of the past that grows larger with each generation, a thousand performances to attend … [and] variants to recognize.” Perhaps this explains why in 2008 Gypsy received its fifth Broadway mounting, less than five years after its previous incarnation.
Following Patti LuPone’s acclaimed appearance in a concert staging of the show in Chicago, Arthur Laurents, author of the show’s book and director of two other acclaimed revivals, signed on to direct her in a limited run of the show for the Encores! series at New York’s City Center in the summer of 2007 amid rumors that he had previously chosen Bernadette Peters over LuPone for the Sam Mendes-helmed 2003 revival.
The City Center Gypsy received excellent reviews from most outlets, and despite Ben Brantley’s reservations in The New York Times, the production was brought to Broadway with almost its entire cast intact, opening in March 2008 to some of the strongest reviews of the season. Even Brantley was taken this time, saying the production’s “raw power should be enough to silence any naysayers (myself included) who thought that 2008 was way too early for yet another Broadway revival of Gypsy.”
However it got there, the effect of giving us two Broadway Roses in so short a time, both of whom are among the foremost Broadway belters of their generation, is to give us an opportunity more potent than ever to compare Rose against Rose. It also illustrates how large the role looms over Broadway, with it now seeming almost necessary for great singing actresses of a certain age to tackle the part.
At the time of Peters’ performance in 2003, many were able to compare her to another recent Rose. Betty Buckley, who replaced Peters in her Tony-winning role in Song and Dance on Broadway and replaced LuPone in London in Sunset Boulevard, had come close to Broadway with her Rose at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 1998. In discussing that production, John Clum said Gypsy had become “the Norma of musicals, the ultimate diva challenge.” He added, “I have not experienced an audience response like the one at Betty Buckley’s Gypsy since the grand diva nights at the Met.”
Ken Mandelbaum recalled a similar response to another Rose, Angela Lansbury in 1974. “For ‘Rose’s Turn ,'” Mandelbaum wrote, she “received perhaps the longest ovation I’ve ever witnessed for a single musical number.” Buckley received a rave from Brantley, but according to Mordden, Laurents told Buckley she was “execrable” in the role, ending any hope she would go on to play Rose in New York or London. Clearly Rose has become the grandest of diva Broadway roles, winning new fans and dissenters with each new performance.
One difference between Rose and the great roles of opera is that there will always be the progenitor—the “ur-Momma,” as New Yorker critic John Lahr calls her. Ethel Merman’s performance as the original Rose is legendary and inescapable. Her performance of the songs is preserved forever on the original Broadway cast album, while her performance on stage exists only in 50-year-old memories, the writings of those who saw her and a few tantalizing live recordings that lurk in private collections. With only these ephemeral tools, it is impossible to compare Merman’s performance closely with Roses in the here and now, so the legend that she was and is the greatest of them all becomes difficult to dispute. As Mordden says, “Each new Rose [will] be compared with Merman in search of the true Rose of the world.”
When she opened in Gypsy in 1959, Merman had been working on Broadway for almost 30 years. Since her auspicious debut in Girl Crazy in 1930, she had won raves in a series of triumphs including Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam. She had not only debuted many of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter’s greatest hits, but she had also worked with many of the best comedians in the business, including Jimmy Durante and Bert Lahr. Her own comedic skills had been compared by critics to the likes of Fanny Brice.
Over the years, it has been suggested that other Roses have found greater acting depth than Merman. (In his 2000 memoir, Original Story By, Laurents says Sondheim called her “a talking dog.”) Nevertheless, Merman and Rose are forever linked. Without Merman, there would be no Rose. The project was assembled as her vehicle. It was Merman who demanded Jule Styne as composer (declining to sing a score with both words and music by Sondheim, who was still an untried Broadway composer at the time), and her trademark “shouting” and bulldozer personality are all over the role.
Today’s audiences know Merman mainly through cast recordings. However, in the early 1930s, Merman appeared in a handful of Hollywood musicals; in 1936, she re-created her role as Reno Sweeney on screen in Anything Goes. The show was drastically altered in its film incarnation, however, and after appearing in a few other films (most notably Alexander’s Ragtime Band), Merman went back to Broadway and did not make another Hollywood film until she reprised her Tony-winning role of Mrs. Sally Adams in the 20th Century Fox adaptation of Call Me Madam in 1953. The following year, she appeared in an original movie with a score of Berlin hits, There’s No Business like Show Business. Though she appeared in other films and made frequent television appearances, these were her last two major Hollywood musicals. The film version of Call Me Madam made a number of changes to the material, but it retained most of the score and even a fair amount of the Lindsay-Crouse dialogue, making it our closest opportunity to seeing what Merman was like in one of her mature Broadway roles. Though it would be more than five years before she would appear in Gypsy, her film performances as Mrs. Adams and Molly Donahue in There’s No Business can help us imagine what she might have been like as Rose.
Opening night notices of Gypsy in 1959 were excellent. Walter Kerr famously dubbed it “the best damn musical I’ve seen in years” in The New York Times. Although most of the reviews focused on Merman, notice was also made of the other creators. Frank Aston described Merman’s climactic number: “Jerome Robbins puts her in a spot, with the whole stage open about her. Jo Mielziner’s lamps paint changing letters against the background. And Miss Merman lets go in the best song Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim have prepared for the evening, ‘Rose’s Turn’ … . The ker-whalloping Gypsy is a sophisticate’s dream.”
The production opened in May of 1959, a month after the Tony Awards, so Gypsy had to wait almost a year for its own Tony night, only to be completely shut out of the 1960 awards, with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final show, The Sound of Music, tying the Pulitzer Prize-winner Fiorello for best musical, and Mary Martin taking best actress over Merman. (Asked about her feelings on the loss, Merman reportedly quipped, “How are you going to buck a nun?”)
Merman played Gypsy for another year after the Tonys and took it out on a triumphant tour of the country immediately after closing in New York. A second national company (in which a young Bernadette Peters appeared as a Hollywood Blonde) starred first Mitzi Green and later future Follies cast member Mary McCarty. Merman famously lost the role of Rose when Gypsy was made into a film, however, and Rosalind Russell had to be dubbed by Lisa Kirk for most of the vocals in the movie. Merman had been promised the movie and was livid over its loss; most of the show’s creators disowned the film, which also starred Natalie Wood and Karl Malden, and later barred proposals for a remake, citing the disastrous results of the first attempt. Although today we can bemoan the loss of a film preservation of Merman in her greatest role, the film is perhaps less terrible than it might have appeared in 1962. The 1993 Bette Midler television adaptation was more faithful to the original, but many aspects of the production design and acting in the original film compare favorably to the TV production. (Laurents referred to the Midler version as a “dud” in 2004.)
It is also possible that in the long run, Merman’s loss has been Rose’s gain. If Merman had gotten to preserve her Rose on film, it might have made it impossible for others to re-imagine the role, the way Brando’s Stanley Kowalski and Yul Brynner’s King of Siam have stunted all other interpretations. It is also possible that Merman would not have been shown to best advantage in a film Gypsy. For the film of Call Me Madam, her somewhat stage-bound manner feels appropriately broad for the light comedy, but perhaps under the camera’s scrutiny, her Rose would not have appeared as excellent as it did in the theatre. It is impossible to know, and now all we have is the Merman myth; the legend of her performance as Rose is perhaps greater than an actual performance could be.
After the film, other actresses, including Ann Sothern and Vivian Blaine, played Rose in stock mountings. In the early 1970s, after several proposals to bring Gypsy to London with Merman reprising her part fell through, a new London production was proposed to star Elaine Stritch, who had recently appeared to acclaim in the West End staging of Company. However, Stritch’s name failed to interest the needed financial backing, and after an initial refusal, Angela Lansbury was eventually convinced to take on the role. With Laurents as director, Lansbury’s acclaimed interpretation helped solidify Gypsy’s reputation as one of the truly great shows. The difference of approach and staggering depth that Lansbury brought to the role revealed that Rose was a character rich enough to be played in different ways. Laurents also took the opportunity to fine-tune some moments in the show, perhaps most notably the transition from the end of “Rose’s Turn” to the final scene. He described the new approach to Craig Zadan:
“At the end of the number she bows and you can feel the audience standing and screaming — but it’s so strange. Why is Angela Lansbury taking a bow at this stage of the game? It’s the first bow she takes in the show. And she has a rather demented look in her eye. On the third bow, all the lights go out except for a spot on her. And then a spot picks up Gypsy as she walks on … and the audience stops applauding … but Rose keeps bowing. Then you realize that it was all in her head. It’s very spooky. You see, now the last scene doesn’t seem tacked on.” After triumphing in London and on tour in the United States, Lansbury took Broadway by storm in 1974, winning her third Tony.
The 30th anniversary revival that came to Broadway in 1989 is now further away from us than that revival was from the Lansbury revival, and further than the Lansbury was from the Merman original. Still, the production, which starred Tyne Daly, is the Gypsy close enough in many of our memories to be the most readily comparable to the “latter day” Roses of Buckley, Peters and LuPone. Daly was an accomplished stage and television actress not known for her singing, and she was the least vocally secure of all the Broadway Roses. Nevertheless, her Rose received raves from several critics, most importantly from Frank Rich in The New York Times, and she became the second Broadway Rose to win a Tony. The production was unique in that it was the only Broadway Gypsy to continue its run with a replacement Rose. Daly’s successor, Linda Lavin, provided a solid performance when she took over the role in the summer of 1990, but was deemed a “washout” by Rich. The production eventually closed that winter with Lavin but triumphed again when Daly brought the show back for a return engagement the following spring.
In 2003, when the Mendes-Peters revival began previews, there were rumors of problems with the production; the set and costume design was rethought, and the star became ill and began to miss performances. Many predicted disaster, but Peters managed to open in the show and received a rave from Brantley in the Times. The Associated Press’s Michael Kuchwara and Clive Barnes in the Post also sided in favor of the production. Negative reviews came from Howard Kissel in The Daily News, Charles Isherwood in Variety and Linda Winer in Newsday. On the strength of Peters’ name, the production ran just over a year on Broadway.
The 2008 Broadway revival received almost across-the-board raves and went on to win Tony Awards for all three of its stars: LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines. The production is projected to run at least until March 2009. It is unlikely that Gypsy will be seen on Broadway again too soon after the current revival, but there is no question it will continue to be revived around the world as long as there are great singing actresses and musical theatre fans.
GEORGE REDDICK is a writer based in New York City. He is a regular contributor of book reviews for TalkinBroadway.com.